Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 5:26 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 5:26 pm, 6th April 2010

The hon. Gentleman would be right if I had total confidence that whoever formed the next Government would find time to start the whole process all over again. Where there is consensus-a word used by the Leader of the House earlier-it seems sensible to move forward and get those provisions on to the statute book. We could then have deliberation and debate about the controversial issues and how to progress with them. When there is consensus we should definitely be moving forward.

Notwithstanding the many concerns that have been raised over the past few months about the move from analogue to digital radio, broadly speaking there is now consensus about that measure. The Secretary of State has laid down clear criteria that have to be met on listenership and coverage before the two-year starting pistol can be fired. Of course, there have been concerns. For example, some people thought that FM would be dropped, but we know that it will not be dropped; indeed, FM could become a new vibrant platform for local and micro-local radio stations and given more power. Possibly, Ofcom could start to give them even longer licences. With all the conditions that have been inserted, that is another exciting provision that we should acknowledge and accept so that everyone can have the real benefits of the digital radio era, in terms of greater interactivity and so on.

The Government have done a disservice by failing to promote the real benefits of digital radio as effectively as they could. It is not surprising that the Committee in their lordships' House castigated the Government for their failure. The industry could have done more. It is a pity that it has taken so long for FM to be included in all the DAB radios now on sale. It is only very recently that we have heard of the launch of the mechanism that will ensure people can have a single tuner covering DAB and FM-a single EPG, or electronic programme guide. That is welcome, but the work could have been done sooner.

There is controversy about some aspects of the Bill, some of which relates to the independently funded news consortiums. On the Liberal Democrat Benches, we welcome the trials that are taking place to find new and imaginative ways of filling the gap that is being created on the ITV regional news platform.

Those who have bid to become involved in the trials have already made some imaginative proposals. However, the Bill will merely give a power to a future Secretary of State to roll that out more widely if, first, an acceptable source of funding can be found and, secondly, the Secretary of State agrees to do so. I fail to understand why the Conservative party is so adamant about deleting that part of the Bill, because it does not need to do so. It could let the trials roll on, and if it is not satisfied with their outcome, it need not have a wider roll out, so the Liberal Democrats will certainly do everything that we can to help that part of the Bill to pass. I hope that just because the Conservatives are unhappy with the proposal, the Secretary of State will not suddenly roll over and say that he will drop it, because I think that, together, we can get it through.

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